How To Crowdfund A Book: An interview with Marcus Westbury

When Marcus Westbury launched a Pozible campaign to crowdfund his book Creating Cities, he hoped he might raise $10,000 within 60 days. He reached his goal within 24 hours. At the end of the 60 days, he’d raised over $40,000 - and pre-sold around 900 books.

His experience opens up exciting possibilities for other writers, though it also speaks volumes about the interest in the work Marcus has done with his non-profit organisation Renew Australia, an innovative low-cost, low-budget urban renewal scheme that has revitalised communities around Australia, beginning in Newcastle.

We talked to Marcus about how his campaign worked, why he decided to crowdfund his book, and the possibilities the model might hold for other writers - particularly those with established communities around their work, or niche audiences that don’t fit the bookshop distribution model.

Marcus Westbury: 'I think it’s a model that’s going to become more popular. The publishing industry isn’t a good deal for people like me.'

Marcus Westbury: 'I think it’s a model that’s going to become more popular. The publishing industry isn’t a good deal for people like me.'

What inspired you to set up crowdfunding for the book?

A few things. I had thought about doing a book for a while, but it was a bit of a challenge to work out where it fit within the publishing ecosystem. I had talked to a few publishers who had some interest in publishing a book, but non-fiction publishing in Australia doesn’t pay very well. It doesn’t give you a lot of time unless you’re fortunate enough to have a huge profile or a great blockbuster story to tell.

What I wanted to write and what the publishing industry can sell are not the same thing. I was fairly confident that there was a strong community of people for the sort of book that I wanted to write who would support it, but I wasn’t necessarily confident it would be the sort of thing that a publisher could necessarily sell to a mass-market audience. So, crowdfunding in that context made a lot of sense: going out to the community I thought would be interested in the book and asking them to support me to make it.

I guess with what you’re writing about and what you’re working in, you must have a huge community around you who would be really interested.

That was a big part of it. Recognising that if it was a book for that community, then that community would be engaged in making it happen, as opposed to the idea of producing a book that’s a product for a publisher to sell in bookstores.

So the model of what you were doing seemed to fit the model of crowdfunding?

Yes. And I had donated to a lot of other people’s crowdfunding campaigns. I had worked with a lot of other people who had successfully crowdfunded their projects. It was a model that I also wanted to experiment with more generally, with my own work. I had often worked on projects that had been self-funded or had been in a gap between what can be institutionally funded and what can’t. Crowdfunding to me made a lot of sense as an experiment.

Had you seen any other books or literary crowdfunding before?

I’m aware of a few anthologies and things like that. I think I’ve contributed to a few of those anthologies. I’m aware of a couple of comics projects. But on the whole, not directly. Pozible has a whole writing section and there’s a series of books. But it’s relatively unusual, I think, for an individual author to put a non-fiction book out there like this – I didn’t find a template to follow.

How did you get the project up, and how much work and promotion did it involve?

The community around the book is actually the community around a whole other body of work. The preparation for it has been going through ten or 15 years of running festivals and events and helping other people with their projects. That’s the community that supported it, more so than … Suddenly, I’ve become an expert on crowdfunding. So I keep getting enquires. People going ‘hi, I’ve got an idea for a thing and I want to crowdfund it, have you got some tips?’. A big part of it is: work for 10 or 15 years for free on projects that will help other people and they’ll owe you a favour. It’s not really a short-term strategy.

I was fortunate enough to talk to some people who had successfully crowdfunded other projects – like Kylie Gusset from Ton of Wool. They gave me some very practical advice about how to pitch things like rewards, what people respond to. I got some very good last minute advice from Paul Callaghan, who used to run Freeplay, a computer gamers conference. He had some analysis from when they’d done their crowdfunding campaign about which price points were the most popular. I looked at his analysis and realised my price points were completely different. Before I launched my campaign, I tweaked it to make sure I had something at each of those price points and sure enough, they were the most successful. But, it probably says more about the strength of the community around the work than anything that it took off so quickly.

That was amazing. Within one day, you’d reached your target – is that right?

Yes. It was a 60 day campaign and it hit the target in 23 and a bit hours. It was crazy. I broke all the rules about launching it too. I’d read lots of advice about the best day and time to launch a crowdfunding campaign and that sort of stuff.

I did it on a Sunday morning, because that was when I had time to press the send button and check everything. But apparently Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons are the best times, because people are at their computers. Between Sunday morning and first thing Monday morning is the time when people are least likely to be at their computers and donating money to crowdfunding campaigns. I did it anyway.

I thought it was going to be a long campaign. By the time people were arriving at work on Monday morning, we’d already hit the target.

You must have been surprised by that level of success.

I literally cried. Part of the reason for doing the book also came because I’d been doing a lot of work with the Renew stuff and we’d hit a bit of a bump in the road, practically and financially. I was facing a fairly bleak period of time where I was expecting not to get paid for a few months.

I had been working on the book in the background, but that probably forced my hand and made me decide to put the idea out there. It was such a good thing to see the validation of the community, so many people validating my work. I’d never asked that community for anything before. It was so nice to see the rallying around me. It was amazing to see it keep going. The advice I got was, once you’ve hit your target, that will probably be it. But I had 170 people that first day, and it was up to nearly 1000 by the end. So it was really good.

I saw that you had said, ‘now that I’ve hit my target, this is what I will do extra, if I get more’. Do you think that’s part of what helped you to go beyond the target?

A little bit. There’s a whole language of crowdfunding I’ve learned along the way. Stretch targets: when you’ve hit your target, you should have a Plan B, for what you’ll do next. I was a bit wary of that. I deliberately promised a short book, a book that would come out fairly soon, a book that isn’t a 70,000 word or 100,000 word book – it’s a 30,000 word book of ideas around the work I’ve been doing.

I was really careful not to go out and say ‘I’m going to write twice the book, or I’m going to say I’m going to produce it on leather made from goats personally slaughtered’, or something. You know – I’m going to make it even special-er and more fancy. But there very practical things the extra money would allow me to do.

I’d done the original $10,000 costings based on mate’s rates for things like editing and design. I had people who had agreed to help me for not a lot. It allowed me to pay those people properly. It gives me a buffer in terms of my own time I can devote to it.

I was cautious not to over-promise. Apparently that’s one of the great risks with crowdfunding. You get carried away with the adrenaline – you think you can come up with even more money if you come up with ridiculous things to promise. I was very cautious not to do that. But I was careful to point that the $10,000 figure was the ridiculously cheap figure that just allowed me to do it. That’s not a lot of money for what I was trying to do. The extra funds will allow me to do it more thoroughly and better.

I read that you decided you could do more original work with the extra funds, whereas it was going to be repackaging of the writing you’d already done. Is that right?

Yes, that was one of the factors. It certainly gives me more time to make sure the content is fully original. At a base level, the starting point was that I could produce an anthology of a bunch of things I’d written that hadn’t been put together. But that’s not what I’m going to do now.

Renew Australia has recently been allocated $300,000 of federal government funding. Is that right? And is it connected to the campaign at all – has that drawn the attention of government?

Though the funding was budgeted for – it wasn’t locked in before the government went into caretaker mode before the election. It was promised before the book project, but the realisation that it was uncertain was part of what spurred me to the Pozible campaign. We’ve worked well with all sides of politics so we’re hopeful the new government will deliver it but they haven’t made any commitment.

One thing that’s been important is it’s shown the breadth and depth of support we have. We’ve had over 900 people contribute. That’s one of the highest numbers of people to contribute to a Pozible campaign. They’re from every state in Australia and around the world. It says something. We’ve never received federal arts funding for the work we’ve been doing with Renew Australia. We’ve received a little bit of social innovations funds that have come and gone, but we’re working in a space where we don’t quite fit the box with anyone.

Part of the beauty of crowdfunding is that it demonstrates that there’s a massive constituency of people who really do care and think this stuff is important. That becomes part of my ammunition to convince governments and philanthropists that this is worth investing in.

I saw that you had presold some books as part of the Pozible campaign too.

Everyone who’s donated $15 or more gets a book, and there’s over 900 people who have donated. So I’ve probably sold about 900 books. In the first day or so, when I was working towards that $10,000 target, some people were being quite generous, donating $100, $200, $500. Much larger amounts. What was interesting was that once I actually hit the target, it moved to a lot more people buying the books. Mostly that’s what it’s been since then. The first $10,000 was raised by about 150 people. Then the $30,000 was raised by 700 odd people. The average amount dropped substantially.

The one thing that’s doing my head in right now is that now that the campaign is over, but I’ve still got people saying, ‘I want to buy a book, how do I do that?’ and I have no mechanism right now to sell them the book. I need to find some way of pre-selling books, but it’s just not something I’ve had the chance to think about. I’m not ready for that at the moment.

This is an interesting model in terms of finding your audience.

Do you think this is a model that might work for other writers, or do you think it’s fairly specific to organisations or writers that have a community around them?

I think it’s a model that’s going to become more popular. The publishing industry isn’t a good deal for people like me. A person I know who is a publisher and had previously offered to publish my book, when I sat down and talked to her about what I was thinking of doing, she said, ‘Look, our clients are bookshops, they’re not people. You can find the people who are interested in what you do a lot better than we can.’ I thought that was a really interesting point.

Their timelines are very long, their distribution systems are clunky and inefficient. The whole infrastructure and dynamics of the publishing industry don’t necessarily lend themselves very well to what I’ve just done. I think it’s a model that will suit more people. Theoretically, the book will be around pretty much forever. It’s a long tail book.

I’ve done all the maths on the assumption that it can be print on demand, sold online forever, and ebooks can be sold forever, rather than trying to sell 10,000 or 5,000 copies in a bookshop that need to be warehoused, over the three months they’re on the shelf. It’s a book that will probably sell ten a month over five years. The maths of that makes perfect sense to me and I own all the rights and I can do that.

Whereas if I had gone with a publisher, I would have made almost nothing with that proposition. I might have benefited from their ability to generate publicity and get prominent places on store shelves. It probably would have helped me find people that aren’t the ones that I already know. But perhaps at the expense of the relationship with people who are already engaged.